Director Nicholas Winding Refn introduced Only God Forgives as the acid trip to Drive‘s coke binge. Stylistically they’re peas in the same pod, yet whilst Drive mesmerised with its electrically dangerous cool, Only God Forgives is a particularly potent nightmare. It wraps its circle of vengeance inside an exploration into the mind of a son desiring a return to the womb. Its Thai setting and trippy direction makes the film feel almost mythological, enchanting in its violence and unnerving in its fantasies.
Ryan Gosling returns as another man of few words under the direction of Winding Refn, this time given a name, Julian. Julian is domineered by his terrifying, outrageous mother (played gloriously against-type by Kristen Scott-Thomas), with strong hints that their relationship is more than just mother and son. Julian is an American living in Bangkok, whose brother Billy kills a prostitute, sparking Lieutenant Chang (credited as ‘the Angel of Death’) to implore the prostitute’s father into reaping revenge, cutting off the father’s arm in the process as punishment for allowing his daughter to work in her chosen profession. Revenge leads to more revenge, leaving behind a trail of blood, incest and karaoke.
The film is cut up with a small handful of incredible, surreal scenes featuring the ‘Angel of Death’/Lieutenant earnestly engaging in a favourite pastime: singing traditional Thai songs in a karaoke bar whilst his colleagues watch on with seriousness. These scenes feel so outlandish, jerking the film’s tone but they’re actually some of my favourites, adding to its dreamlike grip. It’s a bizarre directorial choice and I’m still not quite sure what the scenes are meant to mean but sometimes the surreal can just be powerful on its own even if you can’t quite pin down the reason.
Each shot is full of symmetry and patterns, tessellating through corridors. Winding Refn commented after the screening that he had no money for production design, which is just a credit to the richness of the Thai underworld and nightlife, plus the director’s instinctive talent to frame each shot with a gorgeous magnetism as the camera delves deeper and darker around its seedy hallways. It’s fascinating to look at and terrifying to watch, not least because of Kristen Scott-Thomas’s ball-crushing matriarch which is worth the entrance fee alone. Following Drive, Gosling is cast brilliantly as he plays subtly against expectations, peeling back the curtain slowly.
Only God Forgives will stir and divide audiences. It’s abrasive, aloof and open ended. Whether thought of as an acid trip, nightmare or anything else, it takes you deep within something horrible and beautiful. Whether it’s ultimately profound I’m not quite sure, but the experience is completely absorbing.
Review by David Rank
Only God Forgives is out on 19th July in the US and 2nd August in the UK. Running time 90 mins. Certificate 18 (UK).